British Columbia's historic drought conditions

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Explainer - British Columbia's historic drought conditions

British Columbia is experiencing severe drought levels and unprecedented conditions around the province. 

Drought is a recurring feature of climate change. It is a shortage of water caused by reduced precipitation and rain, during an extended period of time. Droughts lead to reduced water availability. People, organizations and businesses across sectors are being called on to reduce water usage as much as possible.

We asked Hossein Bonakdari, Associate Professor of Civil Engineering (climate change, artificial intelligence modelling, design of climate change resilient water infrastructures), in the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Engineering, about this natural phenomenon.

Question: Why is there a drought problem in British Columbia despite its annual precipitation of over 1100 mm?

H.B.: The drought problem in British Columbia stems from the unique seasonal pattern of precipitation in the region. While BC receives a significant amount of rainfall during the winter months (from November to March), there is a notable decrease in rainfall during the summer months. This distinct precipitation regime results in reduced water availability and management challenges.

Q: What are the current challenges faced by the south coastal basins of British Columbia?

H.B.: The   are currently facing severe challenges due to record-breaking low snowpacks and unprecedented high summer temperatures. As the snow melts and the weather becomes warm and dry, streamflow droughts are occurring in the region, exacerbating the water scarcity issue.

Q: Why does British Columbia experience streamflow droughts during the summer months?

H.B.: British Columbia experiences streamflow droughts during the summer months primarily because of below-normal snowpack levels. Summer streamflow heavily relies on groundwater recharge during the snowmelt period. When there is a below-normal snowpack (also known as snow drought), there is a subsequent reduction in summer streamflow, leading to a streamflow drought.

Q: How does the water availability in British Columbia compare to other countries?

H.B.: British Columbia is relatively fortunate to have a relatively abundant water supply compared to many countries around the world. While BC receives over 1300 mm of annual precipitation, there are countries that receive less than 200 mm of total precipitation in a year. However, effective water resources management plans are crucial to ensure the proper distribution and utilization of this valuable resource in BC.

Q: What is the significance of understanding the seasonal precipitation pattern in British Columbia?

H.B.: Understanding the seasonal precipitation pattern in British Columbia is crucial because it sheds light on the challenges associated with water availability and management in the region. With approximately 75% of the annual precipitation occurring during the winter months, there is a distinct reliance on snowmelt for summer streamflow. Lack of adequate snowpack can lead to streamflow droughts, highlighting the need for effective water management strategies.

Q: How can the province manage water to overcome drought?

H.B.: Implementing similar strategies to address drought in British Columbia can significantly improve water resilience and conservation efforts. Here are the details on how the following initiatives can help mitigate drought in BC based on existing experiences:

  • Provincial and Territorial Governments Executive Order: BC can adopt a similar executive order emphasizing capturing and conserving more water. This directive would provide a framework for prioritizing water conservation measures and implementing policies that promote efficient water use across various sectors.
  • Ambitious Water Resilience Targets: Setting ambitious targets for building water resilience is crucial. BC can establish specific goals and timelines to enhance water storage, improve water-use efficiency, and promote sustainable water management practices. These targets can drive action and mobilize resources towards achieving water resilience.
  • Fast-Tracking Groundwater Recharge Projects: Expediting groundwater recharge projects is vital to replenish depleted aquifers during periods of drought. BC can identify suitable areas for groundwater recharge, invest in infrastructure for artificial recharge, and incentivize practices that enhance natural recharge processes.
  • Maximizing Stormwater Capture: Stormwater capture is a valuable source of water that often goes underutilized. BC can implement measures to maximize stormwater capture by constructing retention basins, green infrastructure systems, and other water-capturing technologies. These initiatives can help recharge groundwater and reduce runoff, ultimately increasing water availability during droughts.
  • Expanding Above and Below-Ground Storage: Increasing water storage capacity is crucial for drought resilience. BC can invest in expanding above-ground storage facilities like reservoirs and construct underground storage systems such as aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) projects. These measures ensure adequate water storage during wet periods to be used during dry spells.
  • Modernizing Conveyance Infrastructure: Upgrading conveyance infrastructure is essential for capturing more storm runoff. BC can invest in modernizing canals, pipelines, and other water transport systems to capture and direct stormwater runoff to storage facilities. This approach optimizes the use of available water resources and reduces losses due to inefficient conveyance.

For interviews, members of the media may directly contact:

Hossein Bonakdari

Associate Professor, Department of Civil Engineering, Faculty of Engineering

[email protected]